Are Mineral Sunscreens Right for You?

When comparing mineral and chemical sunscreens, here's what you need to know

When comparing mineral and chemical sunscreens, here’s what you need to know

Mineral sunscreens (also known as “physical” or, more accurately, “inorganic” sunscreens) use mineral particles as their main sunscreen actives: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. All mineral sunscreens will contain at least one of these minerals or, more typically, a combination of both. Back in the day, researchers thought that mineral sunscreens worked by reflecting UV rays. What we understand now is that they largely work much more like chemical sunscreens to absorb up to 95 percent of the sun’s harmful rays, and only deflect or scatter about five percent of UV rays.

Mineral sunscreens are particularly good for those who have sensitive skin or who have experienced irritation from chemical sunscreens. Zinc oxide inherently has soothing properties (and is the main ingredient in diaper rash creams). The biggest drawbacks to mineral sunscreens are the texture and the white cast they inevitably impart. Because the mineral particles don’t dissolve in a water base (i.e. they’re oil soluble and require an oil base), formulas tend to be thick and sticky, leaving a visible residue. The good news is that more and more brands are coming out with tinted options that considerably help camouflage the ashy cast. And textures are improving as well, with many thinner options available (just be sure to give these types a thorough shake before each use, as the mineral particles are heavy and will settle to the bottom).

With all these considerations, mineral sunscreens can be tricky to apply, so here are some dos and don’ts to help you maximize both efficacy and enjoyment…

  • Do use a light touch. Use long sweeping motions as if you were icing a cake. The goal is to create a smooth, continuous layer over your skin, which is highly textured;
  • Don’t vigorously rub mineral sunscreens into the skin, which will only move the mineral particles away, creating patches of thin, uneven coverage;
  • Do apply more than you think you need. It’s been shown repeatedly in studies that people apply less than they should. In order to get the full SPF, you need to apply approximately 1/4 of a teaspoon or about two finger lengths of sunscreen;
  • Don’t think of your sunscreen as your moisturizer; you need a lot more of your sunscreen than your daily lotion. If your regular day lotion contains SPF and you want to use it as your sunscreen, you’ll need to apply the amount recommended above;
  • Do use makeup to help camouflage any white cast. Cream and liquid makeup is best, as powder makeup will be frustratingly hard to blend. Use tapping or stippling motions to add colour without disturbing the layer of sunscreen;
  • Don’t mix foundation directly into your sunscreen to create your own tinted sunscreen. You’ll never get the formulas to fully incorporate. The final result will look curdled and, worse, the sun protection will be both weakened and uneven. Also, never rely on the SPF claims on makeup to augment your sun protection—they’re rarely broad spectrum (meaning they won’t protect against UVA) and you’ll never apply enough to reach maximum SPF;
  • Do double cleanse to remove your sunscreen. For people who say that sunscreens often break them out, it’s possible that they simply weren’t properly removing them, leading to clogged pores;
  • Don’t just use micellar water or a quick rinse at the end of the day to cleanse your sunscreen-ed face. We ask a lot from our sunscreens: sweat-proof, water-resistant, humidity-proof. Removing this kind of formula requires two cleansings: first to remove the product, second to actually clean the skin.

The bottom line is that the best sunscreen is whichever sunscreen you’ll actually use, every day. Here are our favourite mineral sunscreens, ranked by texture, going from lightest to thickest…

1. Soothe Daily Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 by Rodan + Fields, $47

A very lightweight, unscented sunscreen housed in a small bottle with nozzle tip. This is part of their “Soothe” range so while all mineral sunscreens are good for sensitive skins, this was developed with an antioxidant complex to be particularly soothing.
Available online

2. Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50 by Skinceuticals, $49

This was one of the first mineral sunscreens to offer both a realistic tint and water-like texture, and remains a classic. The tint has slightly cooler undertones, and it comes in a plastic bottle with nozzle tip. Like all mineral sunscreens with this texture, you want to be sure to shake the container well before every use.
Available online

3. Prevage City Smart SPF 50 Hydrating Shield by Elizabeth Arden, $85

While it’s definitely not a foundation, out of all the tinted sunscreens on this list, the City Smart probably has the most coverage and could easily be a one-and-done for many. It has a very light texture and is packed with skincare benefits. It comes in a sleek cylinder with pump dispenser.
Available online

4. Sheer Physical Protection SPF 50 by Neostrata, $33

A tinted sunscreen with deeper, golden undertones that comes in a rectangular tube with nozzle tip. This also has a thin texture that dries to a less dewy finish than other mineral sunscreens… but far from matte as stated on the packaging.
Available online

5. Regenerist Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 by Olay, $44.99

This is a creamy moisturizer with SPF, so it’s best for regular daily use when you’re not sweating or getting wet. It comes in a cylinder with pump dispenser and settles in quickly. It also contains some skin care benefits including peptides, and is fragrance-free.
Available online

6. Sun Veil SPF 30 by Monat, $52

This is a hydrating, creamy sunscreen that comes in a tube with pump dispenser. It contains hyaluronic acid, antioxidants and botanicals such as arnica extract and red algae. There’s a subtle lemony scent that dissipates quickly. This one tends to set quickly so you want to spread it with minimal, even strokes, then let it settle.
Available online

7. Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 by Neutrogena, $19.49

“Sheer” is a bold claim by this 100 percent zinc oxide sunscreen. It’s in no way even close to being sheer given the physical particles of zinc oxide blanketing the skin. It’s not even one of the more sheer sunscreens on this list. However, that’s not to say it’s a bad sunscreen. Just temper your expectations and understand that no mineral sunscreen can truly be sheer, especially if it’s untinted and used as recommended. This comes in a squeeze tube with flip cap. It has a light cream texture, is fragrance-free and claims to be water-resistant for 80 minutes. For a high-performance sunscreen, the texture is pleasant and not sticky. This is especially a good choice for those with oily skin; those with dry skin might find that this grows uncomfortable throughout the day as zinc oxide absorbs oil.
Available online

8. Sensitive Skin Face SPF 50 by Aveeno, $19.49

The packaging states that this is a lightweight sunscreen that dries sheer—both claims that are simply impossible for a mineral sunscreen. That said, for an all-zinc oxides actives formula (i.e. no titanium dioxide), this isn’t as thick as other similar sunscreens and spreads nicely. The white cast it leaves also isn’t quite as bright as other all-zinc sunscreens. It’s sweat- and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, and is hydrating (but not greasy). It comes in a plastic squeeze tube with a flip-top cap.
Available online

9. Moisture Matte SPF 40 by AlumierMD, $46

From cosmeceutical brand AlumierMD, this tinted sunscreen is a thick, rich cream but does dry down less oily than many other sunscreens. It’s in no way matte (especially if you apply the correct amount), but the finish is definitely less “glass” than others. This comes in three shades with colour encapsulation technology, meaning that the sunscreen will first appear white but as you apply pressure to it, the saturation will deepen.  
Available online

10. High Protection Tinted Compact SPF 50 by Avene, $34.50

There are three ways to use this tinted, gel-cream sunscreen that comes in a compact: on its own as your main sunscreen (though you’ll need to apply a generous amount); applied over a base sunscreen to camouflage an aggressive white cast; or for touch-ups throughout the day. This is a really great, versatile sunscreen that couldn’t be easier to apply and take everywhere with you. The tint looks like a medium shade in the pan, but is quite versatile over a range of skin tones. The white plastic compact comes with a sponge applicator.
Available online